Dr Dhani Prem - Birmingham's first Asian Councillor
His Early Years
Dr Prem was born in Aligarh, India, 60 km from Delhi, in 1904. He became an orphan after the death of his father when he was two months old and his mother eighteen months later. The uncle who became his guardian took him away from school at the age of eight because he could no longer afford to keep him there. His uncle sent him to work as an errand boy for the drapers in his home town of Aligarh. However, he preferred learning to earning 1p per day, and ran away from home to live in a library.
Dr Prem's interest in political matters was aroused after he started reading books about revolution. He became inspired by Mahatma Ghandi's movement to bring peaceful independence to India. After meeting Ghandi he began speaking at recruiting meetings in villages near his town. As a teenage member of Mahatma Ghandi's Congress party and as a fighter for Indian independence from the British Raj he was imprisoned twice. His first imprisonment at the age of 12 lasted for one day.
He was arrested again at the age of fourteen for sedition after speaking for half an hour at a meeting of 80,000 people. In this instance his imprisonment lasted for a period of twelve months. He decided to go on a hunger strike and was placed in a barrack with hardened criminals where he was chained to his bed at night. After he started giving rousing speeches about the independence movement he was removed.
His Years as a Writer
Dr Prem graduated from the National Medical School in Bombay as a medical doctor and to obtain his Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) he came to Edinburgh for three years. To supplement his income he wrote short stories for a leading Indian magazine. He returned to India in the middle of the international recession and was unsuccessful in finding employment as a doctor. The proprietor of the literary magazine Chand made him an editor.
His path to becoming a successful editor was not without difficulty in the initial stage. Whilst in Edinburgh, he wrote a short story in Hindi and sent it to a Delhi newspaper. In due course it found its way into an editor's rejected tray. At precisely that time, the editor was called before his managing director to explain the low quality of the material he was publishing. He protested that he was offered nothing better. Doubting his word, the managing director asked to see his 'rejected' tray. On top lay Dhani Prem's essay. It was duly published with the author mistakenly being given the title D.Litt. By the time Prem returned to India he was famous. Literary circles acclaimed him the author of the best work in Hindi written in the last 30 years. Newspaper proprietors were begging him to join their staff.
His Life in England
After six years as a literary editor, Dr Prem came to London in 1938 on study leave, bringing his wife who eventually attended a degree course at Birmingham University and young daughter with him. He intended to stay for a year but stayed for forty. War broke out preventing his return to India. He went into general practice in Birmingham because there was nothing else he could do. He practised as a GP in Birmingham for 40 years and settled in Gosta Green, Aston.
Three years in Edinburgh had taught Dr Dhani Prem that the British working class was different from the imperialist class he knew in India. He found the working class to be friendly, generous and welcoming and therefore chose a poor area of Birmingham to practise in. This decision was partly based on the fact that no Indian doctor could obtain a house, get a job in a hospital, or be employed in general practice as an assistant during that period. In order to achieve this it was necessary to have some capital which they sometimes lacked. Another reason for Dr Prem's decision was racial discrimination. Dr Prem had applied for a post as a factory medical officer. He had qualifications and the experience of working as a medical officer in charge of 50,000 cotton workers in India. He was called for an interview. When he arrived it was politely explained to him that he had been called because it would not look good to reject him without seeing him, but that his application could not have been considered. He explained that the working class supported Indian doctors. The working class helped the Indian doctors by going to them for treatment and the doctors in turn helped by waiving fees when necessary and by setting up insurance services to cover the families of working men. Dr Prem considered the following view held by the English working-class as an "endearing trait of naiveté "They thought that because you had qualified in India and then again in England, you must be twice as clever. So they had more faith in you."
Dr Prem was invited to join the Association of Overseas Doctors in Britain but refused, because he did not consider himself an overseas doctor and resented been called one. He regarded himself as British. He did not think that the formation of such associations was any solution to the problems faced by overseas doctors. He believed that the best strategy was for the doctor to integrate himself which could be achieved by mastering the laws of the country and its language. After deciding to make his career here he 'threw in his lot' with the British. He joined the Labour Party and Socialist clubs and became a member of the British Medical Association (BMA) executive. He also sat on the National Council for the Liberal Party.
Dr Prem and his Political Involvement
During the war Dr Prem became Birmingham's first Asian Labour councillor for Great Barr in 1946. This position did not cause him to neglect his medical interests. Politics and medicine went hand in hand for him. In his capacity as councillor, he gave priority to medical subjects. He chose to sit on the Health Committee and the Committee for Mental Hospitals. He thought that as a councillor he could do a lot more for his patients than as a non-political doctor. He considered his medical practice and politics as being complementary to each other.
Dr Prem stood unsuccessfully in 1974 as the Liberal Parliamentary candidate in Coventry South. It is possible that he would have become a Parliamentary candidate if he did not break from the Labour Party. He claimed that his reasons for separating himself from the Labour Party were because of the party's trade union attitudes to immigrants and its policies on immigration.
Dr Prem - The Immigrant Cause and Race Relations
When the influx of Asian people into Britain started in earnest in the 1950s, Dr Prem had already been here for fifteen years. He recognised the need for planned immigrations and set up the Indian Immigrant Council in 1953. He thought that it was the responsibility of the host country, to plan the immigrants' reception, to teach them English and the British way of life and to encourage them to adapt. In his opinion the immigrant's duty was to learn English, acquaint himself with British law and become as British as possible. He kept advocating the idea that "You must throw in your lot with the people you have chosen to live with in order to be accepted".
Dr Prem took up the immigrant cause during the 1964 elections and was regarded as a champion of immigrant causes. By the late 60s, when the Ugandan Asians arrived, integration and planning were running smoothly. He played a leading role in the resettling of the Ugandan Asians. As a trustee of the Uganda Relief Trust, he visited the reception centres for over two years and saw the immigrants' reactions. He was very proud of the way the Government handled the situation. He observed that it was done without fuss and bother and the reception which the refugees received caused them to cry with gratitude.
In 1968, Dr Prem severed his ties with the Labour Party because of the expulsion of the Kenyan Asians from the UK. Prior to this he was disappointed with the attitude of resentment displayed by trade unionists in West Bromwich and Birmingham when the first two coloured bus conductors were being appointed in the early 1950s. Dr Prem worked for race relations for twenty years and was often called the architect of race relations in Birmingham. During the 1964 elections he was often on the news challenging Mr Enoch Powell to a debate on race issues. Dr Prem wrote the book "The Parliamentary Leper" (1965) which describes the racial struggles in Smethwick during the 1960s. This book was written after the racially motivated campaign in Smethwick and also charts the history of race relations in Britain and the West Midlands. During his lifetime he was noted to have said:
"Prejudice is a very difficult thing to conquer. No matter how long I live in England, my colour will never alter. This is the thing that makes the difference."
Dr Prem - An Active Member of Many Organisations
Dr Prem was involved in various activities and served on many Indian and Asian welfare groups. He set up an Indian Advisory Council for the UK, a sort of immigrants' Citizens' Advice Bureau and was a vice-chairman of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants. On one occasion he even persuaded Indira Ghandi to appoint a minister for Indians overseas. Unfortunately she fell from office a month after the appointment was made and the minister went with her.
The incident with the bus drivers motivated Dr Prem to call a meeting which founded the Commonwealth Welfare Council in 1955. This developed in the late 1960s into the Community Relations Committees. He became the British president of the Asian Conference, the umbrella group for Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. He chaired the local branch of the Midlands India League and was active in the Indian Workers' Association. He was also a member of Birmingham's Race Relations Panel.
Dr Prem may be considered as one who was concerned about the welfare of people on a whole. For thirty years he served as chairman of the Finance Subcommittee to the Coleshill group of hospitals for those who were psychologically challenged and devoted himself to their cause. He explained that in the 1950s the psychiatric patients were incarcerated, very little was done for them and he therefore chose to put his heart and soul into working on their behalf. He considered this as one of the greatest achievements of his life. He also had an interest in the younger members of society and was founder father of Birmingham's playgroups. While living in Birmingham he set up two trusts in his home district in Aligarh in India. One was for the education of young women, and the other was established to provide his village with its own primary health centre.
As a doctor and politician Dr Prem did not lose his interest in journalism. He was founder of a local radio station and acted as an advisor to the Asian Service of the BBC. He was also a broadcaster.
Dr Prem Honoured
Dr Prem's work for racial harmony won him the offer of an OBE (which he declined on the grounds of its suggestion of imperialism) and an honorary Doctorate of Science degree on 6 July, 1978 from the University of Aston. He accepted the doctorate because in his own words "For the first time an internationally famous British university has elevated racial harmony to the level of achievements in science and technology."
On 23 July, 1977 Dhani Prem became the first Indian to be included in the Indian Honours list while living outside the native country. He received the Padma-Shri, which is equivalent to an award between the British CBE and Knighthood from the Indian High Commissioner. He received the award for services to the Indian community in Britain.
Dr Dhani Prem certainly achieved much during his lifetime. He was a doctor, journalist, broadcaster and author. Before he settled in England he was a lecturer in medicine in India. However, of all his achievements, Dhani Prem preferred to be remembered for his efforts to make people live together in peace. He was particularly proud that he was able to keep Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis together under the single umbrella of the Asian Conference while they were divided on their home territory. Dr Prem tragically died in a road accident in India on November 11, 1979 at the age of 75.
Information on Dr Dhani Prem was gained from the following sources:
The Birmingham Post, 22 October, 1974
Medical News, 20 July, 1978
The Birmingham Post, 4 July, 1977 - Dhani Prem
The Birmingham Post, 14 June, 1978 - Dhani Prem
Evening Mail, 22 June, 1978 - Dhani Prem
The Birmingham Post, 13 November, 1979 - Dhani Prem
Further Information on Dr Prem is welcome
Please contact Birmingham Archives and Heritage if you can provide further details on Dr Prem. Information on the playgroups he helped to establish as well the local radio station he founded would be appreciated.
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